How Facebook Killed the Church: A Correlational Analysis

Having made the claim that Facebook (i.e., the advent of cellphones, texting and Web 2.0) killed the church I realized that I could put this thesis to the test.

From the General Social Survey data set I was able to get the percent of Americans who said they attended a weekly church service.

From the NationMaster data set I was able to get mobile phone subscriptions (per capita) data.

I started in 1986 and went to 2005. Below is the scatterplot of the relationship between mobile subscriptions and weekly church attendance plotted for each year from 1986 to 2005 (each dot is a year):

In short, although there is no proof here, the case I made is consistent with the statistical evidence: As mobile communications increased in America weekly church attendance decreased. Of course, there are a host of other explanations for this trend (i.e., the well known "third variable problem"). Regardless, I thought the graph was interesting.

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11 thoughts on “How Facebook Killed the Church: A Correlational Analysis”

  1. For me, the natural way to test this next is to find out if Millennials who ARE in Church are either (a) less likely to use social media OR (b) more generally socially disconnected, thus making them more inclined toward church-based connections. (My hypothesis is b, but not a).

    Got any grad students in need of a project?

  2. This is all really interesting stuff, Richard. I'm not sure if the brief data that you've collected so far is mere coincidence or you're actually onto something. I do believe that social connectivity is important to our generation; in fact, that's what I look forward to every Sunday morning with our Bible class and Sunday evening with our small group. Others have elaborated on our need for authenticity and whatnot. If you support a thesis project, I think you need to ask about expectations for social media; I think you'll find a significant population who use it as a voice of empowerment and identity--this is who I am and what I believe--rather than to create/manage authentic relationships.

    I'd suggest that there are a hierarchy of friends. There are some friends of mine who I keep up with on facebook to have just enough information--I feel connected but not too, authentically connected. There are some friends (fewer than the first category) that I consider my authentic friends. I don't use social media to keep up with them--I have dinner with them, I invite them to my house, our conversations are more fluid and unexpected. I truly let my guard down with these people.

    But I'm even thinking about questions further than this as I reflect on your's and Mike's questions this week. I'm not concerned with the "why" as much as I am the "so what" If millenials are leaving the church, what are the implications? What happens to church as we know it? Better yet, what happens to the word "church"? Can Christianity in the States survive with this millenial exodus, or does something about our idea of church need to change? What will it take to for us to soothe our anxieties at the notion of church looking different than it does now? Where does this anxiety come from in the first place?

    Forgive me for being a therapist :) but as a millenial who's dedicated to the church, these are the questions I'm interested in seeking answers to.

  3. Jeremiah,
    I've been thinking a lot about the "So what? as well. My guess is that all this means that church becomes less about "affiliation" and more about "lifestyle." That is, in the years to come the church spends less time thinking about "connection" and more time thinking about what it means, collectively speaking, to be a "peculiar people." That is, given that we come to church already "connected" we shift to asking about what makes us distinctive and different.

  4. I think the increase in reality TV shows would show the same correlation. And if we have to pick something to scapegoat I'd rather it be Big Jersey Brother Life or whatever the current hit is!

  5. Very interesting... I really like this kind of analysis.

    Just a question. What does each dot represent (i.e., by which units did you aggregate). Are they different years? Places?

    I enjoy your blog!

  6. Seems suspiciously like the plot of global temperature vs number of pirates:

  7. Yeah, anonymous, but at least in this case there's a set of plausible mechanisms available. qb makes his living griping about others' spurious correlations, but this ain't one of 'em. qb

  8. Interesting. A couple of years back I looked at the correlation from an international perspective, and got a similar result:

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